Especially among nonprofits and community organizations, meetings are a plague. They seem to be called at the drop of a hat, they run over time, and all too often the chief result of one meeting is another meeting.

By Flickr User tiarescott

By Flickr User tiarescott

But if you focus on the purpose of the meeting, and follow some simple guidelines, meetings can become useful.

Here are nine tips to consider:

  • Be prepared to lead. It’s been said that a committee is a beast with many stomachs and no brain. You need to provide the brain — leadership. In today’s workplace, there’s a lot of talk about “collaboration” and sometimes that is a smokescreen for not stepping up when it’s time to lead. Be prepared to follow the agenda, keep to the time, and shut people off who ramble when it’s not time to do so.
  • Use smaller chunks of time. In most organizations, there’s a “default” length of time that most things take. In most nonprofits it’s an hour, though one I have worked with assumes that any meeting will take 90 minutes. You can shrink that time and it won’t hurt anything. When you call the meeting, give a start and an ending time — and make the ending time be earlier than the norm might be. Is your default length an hour? Try scheduling a 45 minute meeting.
  • Have an agenda. You must, you must, you must prepare an agenda. Think about the purpose of the meeting: are you making a decision, getting information, sharing updates, brainstorming? Put the agenda together accordingly. Put fewer items in than you think you can cover. Don’t make it long just because you think the items look lonely on the page.
  • Share material ahead of time. If the meeting is to review material, it must be shared ahead of time, with enough leeway for people to read and think about it. That means at least a full day before, in most cases. It does no one any good to receive materials for a morning meeting the night before. If the meeting starts and it is clear that the materials have not been shared in enough time, end the meeting (if it is the main subject) or skip that item (if it is one of many on the agenda). Next time, people will share their materials, I guarantee it.
  • Start on time. Every meeting that doesn’t start on time is a guarantee that the next one will start later. Often, due to anxiety or other factors, people will want to “wait five more minutes.” Instead, just start. When they do saunter in, don’t back up just for them. People will get the idea and show up on time.
  • Follow the agenda. Your job as leader of the meeting is to follow the agenda and pay attention to time. If the conversation moves off of the agenda and it seems fruitful, step in and make sure people are aware of this. “We are shifting to a new topic. That probably means one of the remaining topics won’t be covered. I just want to make sure we know that. OK?”
  • Recap decisions made. If there is no outcome to the meeting, it was more than likely wasted time. Even if the meeting’s purpose was open-ended, like brainstorming — capture what was decided or discussed. Make sure everyone understands the decisions made or the key items talked about. Allow time at the end to do this.
  • End on time. One reason people hate meetings is that they run on and on . . . and over. Adhere to the end time you advertised. End early if you can (people will want to come to your meetings).
  • Follow up. After the meeting, as soon as possible, share notes on the key items discussed, key decisions, or key questions (depending on the meeting). If you take good notes, you can do this in your sleep. (Or designate someone to do so.)

Some optional things to try to really compress your meetings and make them more efficient:

  • Hold the meeting standing up. (You’ll be more efficient.)
  • Limit the meeting to fifteen minutes. (You’ll get to the point!)
  • Institute an anyone-can-leave-if-the-meeting-is-useless policy. (It forces meeting planners to hold a useful meeting if they know everyone can just walk out.)
  • Hold the meeting by chat. (People can multitask easier and won’t resent the time spent as much.)

What are your top meeting tips? Share in the comments!